You know the traffic jam. It’s the one where you’re sailing along the open road on a Sunday afternoon, when you suddenly encounter a long line of traffic shuddering along at 10km/hr. You slam on the brakes, as do all the drivers behind you, and then all of you inch along for a while before picking up speed again. There is no accident or construction in sight. There aren’t even any rain clouds! What the heck happened?
The answer is in the braking. It starts when a driver slams on their brakes in relatively heavy traffic. When this happens, it causes a wave-like ripple of braking through the traffic behind them. The next driver slams their brakes as well, and so forth down the line. By the time the first cars are moving along steadily again, vehicles are still braking way down the line. This phenomenon can only be sustained in heavy traffic, where there isn’t a wide enough gap between cars to prevent abrupt braking. It solves itself naturally when traffic lightens up and there is enough space for arriving vehicles to keep a relatively constant speed.
Impatient and unconfident drivers tend to have a similar jerky style of driving. Impatient drivers are likely to race up behind a car before braking sharply at the last second. Unconfident drivers tend to hit the brakes if they are not familiar with the vehicle, uncomfortable, or unsure of what to do next. This style of driving is what sustains phantom traffic jams.
The good news about this is that even one vehicle can make a difference in this situation, and it could be yours! The key is to try and keep the speed of traffic as consistent as possible and stop the chain reaction of braking and hitting the gas.
In phantom traffic jams, it’s unlikely that everyone is stopped entirely. Usually you find yourself crawling along at a snail-like pace. The next time you are driving along and notice that the traffic up ahead is slowed right down, try a little experiment.
Instead of rushing up to the last car and braking to a quick halt, start gradually slowing down as soon as possible. This way, by the time you reach the end of the line, you are travelling at relatively the same pace as the slow traffic. The vehicle in front of you might be braking and hitting the gas, so stay a comfortable distance behind them and try to roll along smoothly and consistently.
Doing this forces the vehicles immediately behind you to slow down at a reasonable pace as well. Since they don’t slam on their brakes, the drivers behind them don’t either. Your car can be the first vehicle to roll through the traffic jam without having to brake abruptly at all, setting the vehicles behind you up for success. The moment traffic is flowing smoothly, even if it is slowly, it can finally start to speed up to a regular pace once again.
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